Long ago, before office computers and the Internet and email, before smartphones with their instantaneous texts, he would scrawl memo drafts on long yellow legal pads, and I would type them. I was a clerk-typist; he was an analyst and technically my boss. His was a real post-college career and mine was a summer and winter break job, but he was only three years older than me, and that border between college student and real-world worker seemed not so much a barrier as a glimmering river to ford.
Typing his letters and memos meant using an IBM Selectric, its carbuncled font ball pecking and clacking frantically at the thick letterhead marked “Department of the Navy.” Behind the white letterhead, five variously hued sheets of tissue paper (white, yellow, green, pink, and blue) alternated with carbons. These were the days of White-Out, with its heady smell of alcohol and shame. A typo meant painting over a mistake on the original, rolling the rubber platen back in time, peeling away each carbon copy to erase the error, by now multiplied six times.
In this time before Post-Its, he would tear small squares of paper from the yellow legal pad and write tiny notes to me with a newly sharpened pencil. Maybe we flirted as I delivered his typed memo. (“Your tan lines are showing,” he might have said. “Yours are hidden,” I might have replied.) Maybe he wrote me a note as he made a request for copies, braiding innuendo into the instructions. In any case, it began with letters as tiny as a line of fleas, so small they almost required a magnifying glass to read. One of the later notes read: Thanks for the copies. Now may I request an after-work outing? Dinner? A movie? Yours truly, Tom Thumb. I read it in his presence, standing close enough to feel his body heat in the air-conditioned space. Cubicle walls hugged and shielded us up to the tops of our heads like grey gunny sacks, but left enough room at the top for office spies to peek over. I waited until I was back at my desk in the open secretarial pool, wrote back in equally tiny letters, and signed my note “Thumbelina.” Our office romance sprouted amid miniature notes like these.
Neither of us was small—we were both tall and athletic—but diminutive and cute was what I longed to be, so this strange role-playing charmed me. I had been a basketball player, but he had been a swimmer and a runner and knew the right way to cover ground. So when he took me jogging, he advised me to make better use of my long legs by lengthening my stride.
He took me to meet his parents, immigrants from Czechoslovakia. Later, in private moments when he addressed me as Thumbelina, I would imagine his parents at home in the old country, reading him the tales of Tom Thumb, with the tiny Tom carried away by a raven or battling a giant spider. I imagined him as a little boy, back before the late summer night in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled in, before the January day in 1969 when a student would set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, an act of self-immolation to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion.
He had a last name that contained only one vowel to its four consonants, an odd but thrilling foreign construction that vaguely connected with my Slovenian heritage, both of our distant families at one time under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Perhaps he recognized his lost homeland in my high cheekbones and wide-set eyes (but an Americanized version, matched to my Nike running shoes and bleach-blonde hair).
He owned a two-seater Fiat the color of Cabernet and the shape of a cheese wedge, and he taught me to drive a stick-shift on it. In an empty parking lot I lurched and stalled, started again, ground the gears, waited for his anger, for him to end the lesson, but instead heard his calm breathing beside me in the darkness. I looked over to see his placid smile, unwavering until finally first gear connected to second, second to third, third to fourth, smoothly and without a stall. Then he smiled wildly and rested his warm hand on my neck as I steered the car through figure eights, looping beneath intermittent patches brightened by street lamps, as Debbie Harry’s “Heart of Glass” blasted from the tape deck. I imagined myself in a Möbius strip of bliss.
Other firsts. One night at a steakhouse, I noted with irritation that the red wine wasn’t cold, and he gently informed me that red wine wasn’t meant to be chilled. We backpacked the Appalachian Trail, sipping cognac from a squeeze bottle as we hiked. And that night, after I was sick outside the tent, he fed me a Granny Smith Apple, telling me how good it was at cleaning grungy teeth. He took me out Route 50 to taste my first Chinese food, down winding back roads in the Blue Ridge to my first bed and breakfast. Driving with windows open, my hair in a maelstrom, I felt powerful, adult and free.
We worked at Strategic Systems Project Office—in a part of Virginia called Crystal City, which was not a true city, but rather a concrete-dominated land along the Potomac River, with underground tunnels populated by restaurants, shops, banks, bars, and an entrance to the Metro, one stop on the Blue Line from Pentagon City, two stops from the Pentagon. My first day on the summer job, I asked a question about the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident nuclear missiles, and the presenter quickly shut me down: “I’m sorry, miss, but that’s classified.”
Our office was a civilian island in a Navy uniform-wearing sea. We were called “Management and Manpower,” but I was a woman, and for the most part, the women powered the men’s work, managed filing cabinets stuffed with rainbow-colored letters and memos, made coffee and copies, answered and passed along phone calls. I believed in Womanpower, but in an abstract sense, and as a teenager still, I was glad for the bits of autonomy and power I was given.
* * *
It is the day before my 20th birthday—January 13, 1982—and our sixth-floor office window reveals an icy, dandelion-puffed world, the streets below obscured by snow. Workers fidget and chatter throughout the day behind cubicle walls, desktop radios turned low, tuned to local news for road conditions, until we get word that the federal government will release workers early, and everyone activates.
Amid the buzzing, he pulls me into his cubicle. “Come home with me,” he whispers, and I call my carpool and send them gliding out 95 into the suburbs, home without me. His sports car slips zig-zaggy over the roads to his old house nearby, where he lives with housemates strangely absent that day. When I call my parents to let them know I won’t be coming home until later, I can hear their frowns, the lines in my mother’s forehead as she says, “Yes, but the snow, it’s so heavy, and the roads are so bad. And did you hear about the airplane crash?”
We turn on the TV and stand in front of it, silently absorbing details of the crash that flow live from the crash site only a few miles away: the 14th Street Bridge connects the District with Virginia, and Air Florida Flight 90, leaving National Airport, wings bogged down with ice and slush, has failed to achieve liftoff, has struck the bridge, killing almost all of the 79 passengers and crew, crushing drivers on the bridge. A few survivors are stuck in the icy water near the airplane’s tail, which rises out of the water like a shark fin. Helpless observers line the riverbank nearby. A U.S. Park Police helicopter hovers, sends a line down. The helicopter’s skids dip once, twice, beneath the surface of the ice-clogged river. I hold my breath. One survivor, then another, levitates on the line, lifted, now landing on the riverbank. A woman in the water tries to grab the line thrown to her, but it slips through her hands each time it’s offered. The camera turns toward a man onshore stripping off his coat and boots. He dives into the water in short sleeves and swims 30 feet out to the woman, grabs her, and push-strokes her to the snowy shore to cheers from the watching crowd.
Furious snow curtains the living room windows. I can barely see the street. He turns off the TV, leads me to the couch and presses me backward, downward, kissing my neck then my lips. “Let me give you your birthday present,” he says, rising and returning with a little white jewelry box, a thin glossy ribbon cutting the box into quadrants, tied in a tiny bow on top. Inside are pearl earrings. He beams, pleased with himself. He has turned from the river and the crash so easily, but I feel myself trapped inside a triangle on the map made by bridge crash, Pentagon, airport. I force a smile, finger the pearl globes, a warm white, different from the blue-white of the ice floes on the river. He asks if he can put them on me. “You can try,” I say, and he tucks my hair behind one ear, slides the back off my onyx earring given to me by my aunt. His hands are cold on the sides of my neck, and I shiver. He is slow and methodical, careful to replace the backs of my old earrings onto their posts before he pokes at the holes in my ears with the new gold posts, struggling to find the correct angle through the tiny tunnel of flesh. I flinch only once; he hesitates, keeps going until he is able to pin them both in place, admire his work. As always, his eyes crinkle at the corners, radiating mirth, playfulness.
Later that evening, in his bed upstairs, wearing nothing but the pearl earrings, I turn from him and pull the cream-colored blanket up to my armpits. Streetlights reveal a white-coated pine outside the window. It feels late. I sense my parents waiting for me to arrive home on a snowy night. I think he is dozing, but I’m alert, awake, anxious. When I pick up my watch from the nightstand, he reaches across me and covers my hand with his own, scowls. “What’s your rush?” he asks. “Be with me.” My hand is shackled. I want to pull it away, but instead it stays in place, forming a restless fist. A panic rises up in me; I have no car, no way home but with him.
A switch has flipped. A plane has crashed. Seventy-eight people have died. Others are lying in hospital beds. Families are crying and praying. The snow continues to slick and soften the roads, and it feels like it will never stop, never melt.
I will learn that the woman pulled from the river, too weak to grab the rope, is named Priscilla Tirado. She has lost her husband and two-month-old son. I hear her, hysterical, oblivious to hypothermia or swift river currents, calling for her child. I hear my mother calling for me, throwing a lifeline down the interstate toward the river. My parents want me home. He wants me here, in a snow-globed house, Tom Thumb with his Thumbelina, treading water, holding our breath, waiting for our inevitable conclusion.